NCAA tournament is where Eagles dare Coppin's backcourt won't back down


SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Ever since finding out that seventh-ranked Cincinnati would be their first-round NCAA tournament opponent, Coppin State players have viewed countless hours of videotape in preparation for tonight's matchup. Watching the defensive-minded Bearcats consume such opponents as Memphis State and Massachusetts has left the Eagles impressed.

"Our coaches compare their style to Morgan State, in that both teams like to pressure all over the floor," said Coppin point guard Melvin Roberts. "But watching [Cincinnati], you realize what they do is a lot more intense."

Against a defense that ranks third in the nation, freshman Roberts and sophomore Sidney Goodman -- Coppin's starting backcourt -- will try to keep the team from being rattled as the 15th-seeded Eagles face second-seeded Cincinnati tonight.

Though Roberts and Goodman are impressed by what they've seen of Cincinnati guards Nick Van Exel and Allen Jackson, the two will not walk onto the floor in awe of their better-known opponents.

"We came here to win," said Goodman, when asked during last night's news conference whether the Eagles would be happy simply to make a good showing. "We don't want to be just one of 64 teams. We're going to come out here and play with a lot of intensity."

It will not be easy against a Cincinnati team that likes to trap at every opportunity. The Bearcats, who apply full-court pressure all game, averaged 20.5 forced turnovers and 9.7 steals and allowed 57.9 points per game this season.

"We're a team of man-eating sharks," said Bearcats forward Terry Nelson earlier this season. "If you panic, watch out. We definitely smell the blood."

Morgan State was the only team constantly to pressure Coppin this season, and the Eagles won those two games by an average of 15 points. But this isn't Morgan State.

"They're intense, and they try to take you out of your normal offense with their pressure," said Coppin coach Fang Mitchell. "We're well aware that we're facing one of the best defensive teams in the country. We're going to have to play a nearly perfect game in order to be successful."

For Coppin to compete, the tone will have to be set early by Roberts and Goodman. It might be a lot to ask of Roberts, a point guard who walked on at the start of the season, and Goodman, a shooting guard who has stepped up this season as a team leader.

"I'm not worried about them as far as inexperience," Mitchell said. "I think they're both capable of doing the job."

What Mitchell said he wants from Roberts, Goodman and the rest of his players is patience. Easy scoring opportunities might be available if Coppin goes in with the right attack, the coach said.

"We just have to make the appropriate pass -- when you have a situation where two people are on the ball, somebody will be open," Mitchell said. "It's going to be important for the players to find the open players, plus look for their own shots."

Mitchell didn't head into the season with Roberts and Goodman as his starting backcourt. Roberts, whom Mitchell never had seen play before the start of practice, was cemented on the end of the bench through the first eight games. With Goodman playing the point, the Eagles got off to a 2-6 start.

"I made up my mind that I had to do something different," Mitchell said. "Starting Melvin at the point was my New Year's resolution."

And the move paid off. The Eagles lost just one game after the move, went through the MEAC undefeated and enter tonight's game with the nation's longest winning streak at 16 games.

"I didn't want to do it, because it was hard to imagine giving control of my life to a walk-on point guard," Mitchell said. "But we gave him the opportunity, and he has taken advantage and done a superb job."

Roberts hasn't posted impressive numbers, 2.5 points and 1.6 assists, but the Largo native has done a respectable job as a ball-handler.

"I went from not playing at all to starting, so it took me four or five games before I started to feel comfortable," Roberts said. "It makes me feel good that we started to win after we made the switch."

And the move relieved Goodman of his ball-handling responsibilities, allowing him to become comfortable as a shooter.

"Playing point was an adjustment, because I play with a lot of intensity on defense, and then I have to handle the ball," said Goodman, who averages 11.4 points. "Now, I can spot up a little more, and I don't have to create my shot -- it comes in a rhythm."

During last night's news conference, many of the questions were variations on "Aren't you just happy to be here?" And many of the Eagles weren't happy hearing pre-tournament media speculation about how far Cincinnati would advance -- assuming tonight's game would be no contest.

"We were annoyed -- nobody ever gives us any respect," Roberts said. "Maybe after we play them we can get the respect we deserve.

"But we have to earn respect. We can't expect anybody to just give it to us. And to earn it, we have to beat somebody."

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